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Published on: 22/07/2019

Residents of Chintadripet flock around a water truck (D. Sampathkumar)

The Modi Government, in its second innings, has made a key policy reform of integrating the fragmented departmental silos into a unified and powerful Water Resources Ministry. On the heels of the globally acclaimed ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ for basic sanitation coverage, the Government is now embarking on yet another ambitious ‘Jal Jeevan Mission’, promising piped water to every household in India by 2024 in the Indian Union Budget 2019-20. Given the political commitment, India can make it happen by strengthening its near universal coverage of protected drinking water at 93 percent (JMP, 2017) and showcase a universal global model of sustainable piped water for all.

However, it is not an easy task. Despite a cumulative sector investment of over US$ 40 billion and an annual average investment of around US$ 7 billion, piped water coverage has remained stagnant over the past 2 decades at 44%. The country is in a sandwiched position of rehabilitation and maintenance of a huge languishing infrastructure on the one hand and simultaneously expanding coverage to new and challenging areas on the other. Unless India makes a U-turn to water conservation, source sustainability and improved water governance, the promise will be eluding.

At the outset, one has to get the basics right by answering fundamental questions: (i) is it the role of the government to provide access to adequate and safe drinking water or to provide piped water? (ii) piped water being an improved service, what are the rational approaches to sustainable infrastructure financing and asset management? (iii) how to ensure that the service utilities and water boards are accountable, efficient and customer focused? (iv) acute water stress being a reality and India categorised as a hot spot of climate change, what should be the concomitant measures to regulate demand and consumption?; and (v) what are the roadmap and investment plan to improve  water governance?

Governance crisis

The Indian WASH sector is characterised by high investment, poor services and low outcome. Deteriorating water quality (about 0.12 million habitations out of 1.66 million in India are quality affected), source and infrastructure un-sustainability, weak institutions, poor convergence, abysmally poor cost recovery, high leakage (non-revenue water 35-40%), slippage of services (0.44 million habitations are either slipping back or partially covered), inequity and exclusion are all posing a serious threat to its drinking water security. Community based water supply models are also not sustained on account of complexities in management in the absence of professional support.

The water crisis in India is largely a governance crisis. Constitutionally water and sanitation are state topics.  The Government of India (GoI) issues national polices and guidelines, launches large investment programmes and tries to influence the state through financing instruments. Better coordination and convergence of central and state government approaches are critical for achieving and sustaining the targets. With resources at the disposal, rapid economic growth and growing demand for better services, piped water for everyone by 2024 is an achievable goal, provided that the quality of governance and utility management are improved. The Government should facilitate a rapid transformative shift from hardware to service delivery and to make utilities accountable to the consumers.

Key sustainability pillars

Leveraging the learnings from Swachh Bharat, the Government of India ought to adopt a comprehensive action framework, inter alia on the following key sustainability pillars, to achieve universal piped water supply:

  • As India is rapidly urbanising and the urban service delivery challenges and water security are more daunting, so rolling out a comprehensive package for both rural and urban, needs to be covered by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.
  • A credible baseline and clear definition of piped water in terms of quantity, quality, reliability and service levels are needed. There is a substantial discrepancy between the real piped coverage data and the GoI management information system (MIS) across the states. Hence, the need to start with an updated real data -base.
  • In the context of the massive resource requirements for urban and rural water supply, the GoI may redesign the financing structure as incentive based challenge grants.  The key focus should be on urban reforms as the challenges are equally daunting. Apparently, urban service delivery is left out.
  • Finance being a key instrument, create conducive policy frameworks to empower states / local governments to move away from budget based incremental financing to programme based instruments to leverage resources, both public, private, blended finance and strengthening the municipal bond market. Life-cycle cost approach:  Evolve modalities for ring fenced financing of asset management and capital replacement adopting the life-cycle cost approach.
  • Make Water Boards accountable for performance and efficiency. The coverage gains can come from efficiency and productivity improvements and from new investments. Non-revenue water, cost recovery, over design, wastage, design criteria, project management and adoption of SMART water practices are all areas to focus on. The power of data analytics would be used in benchmarking performance and to make SMART utilities accountable.
  • SMART subsidies:  Drinking water if subsidised at all should be strictly targeted to the vulnerable citizens who cannot afford it, and not to finance the inefficiency of the utilities. Utilities are to be unbundled and restructured along commercial lines.
  • Focus on low income / low performing states: There is huge inter- and intra-state inequity in performance and service delivery. The new mission may encourage investments and performance of low-income states to catch up to national standards at a faster pace.
  • Menu of technology options: The guiding principle of piped coverage shall be on location specific technology choices for challenging areas and isolated settlements.
  • Multiple institutional delivery models: In India many service delivery models are co-existing, like the monolithic water boards, community based /local government centric services, NGOs, private sector and self-supply.  Every model has its own strengths and advantages to be encouraged contextually. Hybrid models of bulk water delivery by Water Boards and intra-village distribution by local governments and communities are also models to be adopted with regulatory oversight on contractual obligations.
  • Promote self-supply: In every state, the communities and households have invested significant resources in self-supply, like over 45 lakh open wells in Kerala, many are converted to domestic piped water supply. A prudential approach should be encouraged and scaled up to self-supply, while assuring quantity and quality.
  • Regulatory quality and enforcement: Under competing use, failing services, inefficiency and poor accountability, the role of the regulator is critical in oversight and enforcement. There are serious overlaps of service provider and service authority functions and the conflicts of interests have to be corrected.
  • Water security/source sustainability: A major concern for drinking water security and higher service delivery is the unsustainability of sources in terms of quantity and quality.  Integration of natural infrastructure (groundwater potential, hydrogeology, traditional water bodies and other water harvesting structures) in project design and watershed/ river basin based project convergence should be part of the technical design criteria.  Experiments like crowd-funded conservation of traditional open wells implemented by the District Collector, Thrissur, Kerala and subsequently scaled up across the state linking NREGS could be models to be contextually adopted.
  • Post-construction support: Community water has emerged as a dominant service delivery model in India under various donor-funded programmes. Most of the schemes are facing serious sustainability issues in the absence of post-construction and technical support. Business models are be encouraged across the country to provide professional water and sanitation services to households, communities, local governments and private sector.
  • Institutional strengthening and change management: Focus on deepening and strengthening decentralisation processes, designing and supporting effective convergence frameworks and facilitate change management to empower utilities to perform at par with international standards.
  • Monitoring service delivery:  The monitoring mechanisms have to be strengthened with data analytics, real time performance audit, and customer focused service delivery.

The mission will be successful, when, “everyone in India expects and receives water and sanitation services indefinitely”. The evidence being, strong political commitment, leadership to achieve results, progressive fund flows, convergence and coordination to ensure environmental sustainability and monitoring, is so effective, nobody doubts the results. Let India set a model to the world on the twin pillars of water and sanitation.

This has been written by V. Kurian Baby and V. Ratna Reddy (Director, LNRMI, Hyderabad)



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